A proposal by Mayor Gabriel J. Campana to reduce the number of city firefighters to cut expenses has the fire chief of Old Lycoming Township concerned.
Campana said he wants City Council to consider asking voters in a ballot box question whether they support reducing the department by 10 firefighters, supplemented with on-call volunteers who would be paid when they respond.
Campana said he can't touch the city fire department rolls because of an existing contract that ends Dec. 31, 2014, so he wants the issue studied after the 2013 budget is adopted.
Hope: Volunteers unlikely
Old Lycoming Township Fire Chief Joe Hope said Campana can't expect to draw away volunteers to work in the city.
"What the mayor is doing is detrimental to the township and the city," Hope said in a telephone interview with the Sun-Gazette.
Campana countered by saying city pension and health care costs are soaring. The city can't continue to pay for the current benefits without risking financial distress.
The mayor said he appreciates the volunteers - some of whom live in the city and volunteer for departments outside the city - who fight fires and respond to emergencies, but he said the city taxpayers can't keep footing the bill for pensions and health care benefits unequal to what the private sector receives.
"I'm looking out for the taxpayers," he said. "Under my tenure, the city won't be put in financial distress as 40 other cities have already declared."
It's a touchy issue for Hope because of an alliance forged in 1999 that provides for shared services between the township fire department and city. The city provides two paid firefighters to work out of the township's Dewey Avenue fire house. In exchange, the township provides a truck and pays for the fuel and any equipment expenses or maintenance.
The alliance also requires the city to maintain 30 firefighters and three command staff.
"We've gone above what we should provide for the alliance," Hope said. "It's basically giving them a fire house, with food preparation, a kitchen, showers and place to rest," he said. Whenever the doors go up for a fire or emergency medical call, that takes energy, heat, air conditioning and lighting, Hope explained.
Additionally, Hope said, the township fire department recently paid for $18,000 to repair Engine 14-1, a truck that has 70,000 miles on it.
"We didn't ask the city for any money," Hope said.
Hope said if the plan goes forward, as Campana envisions, it would end the alliance and put pressure on volunteers who already are having staffing difficulties.
"Our department rolls indicate 118 members, but only 25 to 30 who fight fires," said David Shirn, who served as Old Lycoming Township fire chief for 27 years. Shirn retired from the department but was asked by Hope to discuss alliance issues.
Shirn said Campana asked for the department's number of active volunteers.
"I told him (Campana) that," Shirn said, who noted the purpose in forming the alliance was to get enough personnel to the scene quickly at any hour of the day or night.
'Sad day for everybody'
"It will be a sad day for everybody," Shirn said, should the alliance disappear. "He's (Campana) looking at it from dollars and cents, but when you cut people, you impact public safety."
"I understand Campana's need to cut costs," Shirn said, suggesting Campana might not understand the difficulty volunteer departments have retaining and recruiting members.
"You don't get the everyday person interested in putting in 100 hours of training before they can get on the truck," Shirn said.
Lack of concessions
"I'm not against unions or volunteers. I appreciate both," Campana said. "The city fire department union would not agree to any concession on its pension and health care."
Campana estimates if the department dropped to numbers he's suggested, it would save about $2.2 million annually.
"It's about $50,000 per firefighter," said William E. Nichols Jr., city finance director. "That's about $500,000 to $600,000 annually, but without accounting for the health care and pension costs. So, he's (Campana) about right."
Another neighboring fire department in Loyalsock Township remains in an agreement with the city - but not an alliance as with Old Lycoming.
Because the city doesn't have the eight personnel required for the shifts, it has not been doing that, according to the city's Deputy Chief Dave Dymeck. Instead, the city provides the township mutual aid assistance during certain emergencies, he explained.
Loyalsock Township Fire Chief Michael Minnier said the agreement with the township hasn't disappeared.
"They (city) call on the township and township continues to call on the city," Minnier said. He declined to comment about the mayor's concept. "I haven't seen it."
"We still have an agreement since a few years ago, but the staffing is low," Minnier said.
Campana said his initiative is warranted because the city fire union has not agreed to a contribute a $500 deductible toward medical insurance, as the other four unions representing city employees do.
That and the pension issue has increased costs, according to Joe Pawlak, city finance and budget officer, who said next year's proposed city fire department budget is $6.2 million, compared with $5.5 million this year.
$19,000 for health care
Additionally, a city fire employee's family health care plan costs $19,000, which is more than that of other city employees because of the nature of their jobs, according to Nichols. He could not immediately provide an exact figure of how much more.
"Very few places in the private sector does an employee get to retire at age 50, after 20 years of service, and receive full health care for himself, herself and a spouse for life," Campana said.
Another problem for Campana is 58 percent of city firefighters live outside the city.
He said the fire department union has not agreed to 11 concessions he requested, including paying a contribution toward health care and new hires living in the city. "I asked for a minimum of a $1,000 contribution toward their medical insurance and was rebuffed," he said.
Not a new plan
Part of Campana's plan was taken straight out of a 1981 report titled "Williamsport Burning," done for then-Mayor Stephen J. Lucasi. Author of the 32-year-old report, John Grado, present-day city engineer and director of community and economic development, said he chaired a fire committee that looked at the feasibility of hiring on-call volunteers whose training would be paid by the city. They would get a stipend when they responded to fire calls, as Campana is proposing now.
It didn't get approved, Grado said, but many of the committee's ideas were adopted, including creation of a codes enforcement department and establishment of a 24-hour arson hotline, Grado said. The committee also requested the city hire more junior firefighters to be trained to take over as more experienced ones retired, adding that those retirements "overburdened" a "greatly underfunded fire-pension system."
But Shirn, who was aware of the 32-year-old report, also noted the importance of a more recent independent study on fire service in the city and region, done upon request by the Central Area Firemen's Association.
Among the excerpts in the report, it states about 300,000 state residents made up the volunteer services serving in some 3,000 companies in 1976.
By 1995, a report by the Department of Community and Economic Development estimated the number of volunteers to be near 70,000 - a loss of 230,000 volunteers, or annual decreases of more than 12,000 volunteers a year over that 19-year period.
Shirn said the numbers tell a story of depreciation of manpower and should be considered in any discussion of the issue.
"What volunteers aren't going to want to do is respond to the city's 2,000 to 3,000 calls a year because most do not amount to anything that one would want to leave work, home and their families for," Shirn said. "It might work for the first couple of months, but after that it gets old ... it's been proven with the review of calls while the alliance has been in place."
"Mayors, supervisors and town leaders may not understand how badly these fire services are hurting for manpower," Shirn said.
"The answer is not more equipment, but rather quality people."